The Feb. 20 story “Expo unites UR and community” stated that Cleopatra was of black ancestry.

This is a claim that has been popular with many Afrocentric scholars since the ’60s. What is interesting about this claim is not its merit, of which it has none, but the degree to which it has taken hold and been accepted by so many in academia.

This revisionist claim, inspired by the desire to improve the self-esteem of African-Americans, is usually accompanied by a litany of other similar claims, ascribing black ethnicity to people as varied as Beethoven, Buddha, Hannibal, Jesus, Moses and Mohammed. While I abhor Eurocentrism and support the efforts of scholars to purge the remnants of Eurocentrism from the pages of America’s textbooks, I equally abhor the tendency among some of them to replace one set of ethnocentric myths for another.

Cleopatra was the last ruling monarch of the Ptolemaic Dynasty — a Greco-Macedonian colonial government installed after the breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire, which had included Egypt. The Ptolemies were among three other Greco-Macedonian colonial governments in the region, along with the Seleucids and the Macedonians proper. They were corrupt, abusive ethnocentric autocrats that tried to force Hellenistic culture on people as varied as the Egyptians, Hebrews and Arabs.

Needless to say, native Egyptians regarded the Ptolemies as foreigners. The Ptolemaic Pharaohs, interested in keeping the throne in the family line, continued the incestuous Pharaonic practice of sibling marriage, which ensured not only that the family blood line persevered, but also their ethnicity.

Thus there can be no argument that Cleopatra was of mixed racial lineage. By ascribing black racial qualities to Cleopatra, people minimize and cloud the cultural history of Egypt.

Even if Cleopatra were not Greek, the issue would still be moot, as ancient Egypt was, for the majority of its existence, populated by people who were olive-skinned and Mediterranean, not sub-Saharan and black. This ethnicity encompasses the peoples of Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. While the Egyptians were ethnically Mediterranean, their culture came from the West Asian Mesopotamians, Sumerians and Babylonians.

From them, the Egyptians acquired writing, religion, irrigation and mathematics. Certainly there were black influences in Egyptian culture and some black Pharaohs as well, but these came late in Egypt’s development. Most notably, the Nubians, a black African people enslaved by the Egyptians, rose up and conquered Egypt during the 25th Dynasty of the New Kingdom. However, many historians regard this period as the waning of Egyptian Civilization, as the internal upheavals caused by the said invasion paved the path for the subsequent invasions of Assyrians, Persians, Greco-Macedonians and Romans. It would not be until well after the Arab conquests that true Egyptians again ruled Egypt. That is not to say that there were not powerful, black African kingdoms, as there were many, such as Nubia, Ghana, Mali and Songhai. Egypt, however, was not one of them.

That being said, many people, such as Jesus, Mohammed and Hannibal, who are falsely portrayed as black by revisionist, Afrocentric historians are ethnically Mediterranean. Merely having olive skin and dark hair does not make one black, and classifying the hundreds of millions of people in the region today as such disregards their unique cultural and ethno-linguistic traditions.

Despite the publishing of many books, most notably “Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History” and “Black Athena Revisited,” both by Wellesley College classics professor Mary Lefkowitz, there seems to be a widespread misconception among Americans, black and white, that what is African is black and what is black is African. If one were to truly study African ethnography, as done by Jared Diamond in his book, “Guns Germs & Steel,” one would learn that while the majority of Africans are black, almost 40 percent of Africans are of Arab or Mediterranean descent. Africa is far more diverse than the Afrocentrists would have us believe.

It seems that ignorance of world history is a universal American trait, shared by many, regardless of race and ethnicity. If we are to live in peace with the world’s people we must truly understand their history and not rely on half-baked, emotionally-laden, ideologically-inspired sloganeering, such as that tendered by Afrocentric scholars.

Wittmann is a member of the class of 2001 and can be reached at

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